The Corner

The Usual Straw Men, &c.

Cap and trade, statist health care, and an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell” for thee.

And for thou, Obama the tax cutter, Obama the gas-and-oil driller, Obama the budget freezer, Obama the anti-lobbyist reformer, Obama the bipartisan healer?

This half-hearted pivoting was quite transparent: Obama made these about-faces without acknowledging that the Obama of 2010 is now and then rejecting the Obama of 2009, much less that the partisanship and bickering of the past year stemmed largely from the hubris of having both houses of Congress and an obsequious press. Instead, Obama seemed miffed that after Scott Brown’s victory he had to offer half-hearted sops.

After Obama spent 2009 ignoring jobs in order to focus on health care, he tells us that 2010 will be the year of jobs. So after a year of promiscuously talking about higher income, payroll, health-care, and inheritance taxes on “them,” Obama suddenly believes that small business is the engine of growth, and will therefore get new tax cuts and credits.

Likewise, after ignoring or negating his campaign promises about coal, gas, and nuclear power in his first year, suddenly Obama announces that we’re going to develop them!

Same with federal spending freezes. Same with ethics reform — the first general-election presidential candidate to refuse public campaign financing now deplores the weakening of McCain-Feingold.

We also heard many of Obama’s familiar rhetorical devices:

1) He trotted out the usual straw men: “I was told by some,” “Washington has been telling us,” etc. And once these awful straw men are set up, our hero Obama answers defiantly, “I don’t settle for second place!” The straw-man ploy is now stale.

2) The “I didn’t ask for” trope: Obama acts as if he bravely endures persecution on our behalf, rejects the easy path, and presses ahead on the difficult path.

3) The “they did it” trope: So when Obama talks of “lobbying” and “horse trading” on health care, apparently some right-wing nut in the Senate started buying votes at $300 million a clip? The Washington insider who has the White House and Congress blames . . . Washington!

4) The “Bush did it” trope: So Obama’s deficits are the result of Bush’s spending and weak economy — but is a relatively quiet Iraq due to Bush’s successful surge? No. Obama himself will bring the war in Iraq to a close. He did not offer one word of praise for Bush in a speech calling for unity.

5) The meaningless token: So after piling up the two largest budget deficits in U.S. history, Obama promises fiscal sobriety and spending freezes — but only in 2011, after we pile up yet another year of trillion-dollar-plus red ink.

6) The above-it-all lecturing: After blaming Bush for 30 minutes and castigating the Republicans for “just saying no to everything,” Obama lectures on Washington’s partisan bickering. And after a year of hardball Chicago politicking, a politically weakened Obama calls for bipartisanship and a new tone. That will go over really well.

7) The meaningless deadlines and promises: No speechwriter should invoke Iran and a deadline to comply on nonproliferation; no one believes Obama after the past four failed deadlines, and he should give it all a break.

8) The final hope-and-change flourishes: The emotional end of the speech, which used to set crowds afire in 2008, seemed more rote.

All in all, this was a nonchalant performance that ran for well over an hour. The president’s above-it-all cynicism, mocking, and dry humor didn’t work. The whole thing reminded me of a flat grad-school seminar with a snickering prof talking down to clueless students.

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